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The road to a thriving construction and engineering sector

The construction and engineering industry is a cornerstone of the South African economy but one which is under pressure and if nothing changes, it will become increasingly unsustainable. The industry is further pressured due to its slow adoption of new technologies.
Monty Ditibane, director, DBI Consulting Engineers
Slow domestic economic growth - South Africa has been lagging behind its peers in Africa and the world for quite some time – exacerbates the situation.

After falling to a record low of 12 in the first quarter of 2018, the FNB/BER Civil Confidence Index rose by three points in the second quarter to 15. This means that the overwhelming majority of respondents are dissatisfied with prevailing business conditions. This sustained low confidence is due to a deterioration in almost all of the underlying indicators, most notably construction activity and tendering competition. The civil construction sector therefore remains under tremendous pressure with little, if any, improvement likely over the short term, according to the researchers.

Long-term inclusive growth


The subdued economic growth locally – the South African economy grew by 1.3% in 2017 and the expectations are that 2018 isn’t going to be much better – is one of the factors contributing to the country’s high unemployment rate. The official unemployment rate increased to 27.2% in the second quarter of 2018, up from 26.7% in the first three months of the year.

To address these issues, infrastructure investment has been a key priority of the government and it forms part of the foundation of long-term inclusive growth for a prosperous country.

If infrastructure is key to turning things around for the economy, so is the construction and engineering sector, because the one can’t function without the other. And although the industry therefore has an enormous role to play in economic development, it faces numerous other problems besides the ones already mentioned, including a lack of access to funding, corruption, and a lack of skills.

Staying on the current path will mean that the industry’s role and positive impact on the economy will steadily decrease.

One of the solutions to foster a sustainable construction and engineering sector is the upskilling of the labour force in South Africa and the rest of Africa. This must be done with the Fourth Industrial Revolution in mind. It is transforming whole industries, as well as redefining the skills and competencies needed to thrive.

However, over the same period, the construction industry has continued to operate as it has for the past 50 years, according to the WEF.

Skills development


To keep up, players along the construction value chain need to attract new talent and improve the skills of the existing workforce – deemed one of the priorities by 74% of industry CEOs at the 2018 World Economic Forum held earlier this year in Davos. Improving integration and collaboration along the value chain (65%) and adopting advanced technologies at scale (61%) were other key actions they considered.

According to the WEF, adequate upskilling processes are largely not in place in the industry, but the future requires talent with substantially different skills than today's workforce.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, and elsewhere on the continent, we are not providing our youth with the skills needed to be successful in this new economy. South Africa, and the rest of the continent, should assess its strengths and weaknesses, and address its challenges and take advantage of its opportunities, in this context.

In terms of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on the construction and engineering sector, government and all stakeholders should compare the skills needed to be successful in this new reality, and compare it to what we have and what skills we are providing our future generations with. The identified gaps should be addressed and a new generation of skilled workers should be created.

Emphasis on STEM education


An emphasis should be placed on science, technology, engineering and maths education in our schools for the youth to have relevant skills, and for the country to be able to compete globally, but this is one of the areas we as a country are critically lacking.

The industry must also integrate and collaborate across the construction industry’s value chain, adopt advanced technologies at scale, and maximise the use of data and digital models throughout processes, says the WEF.

According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), many of the digital technologies pervading today’s industrial landscape are readily applicable to all three phases of the value chain in the construction and engineering space — design and engineering, construction, and operations.

“Digitisation will change the game fundamentally, not only enabling efficiency and quality gains along the value chain but also reshuffling the competitive league table of companies and countries,” according to BCG.

Cross-border business


At a regional level, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), comprising 15 member states, needs to open up its borders for better trade and maximise cooperation and innovation across the value chain. The region can also move towards the standardisation of regulations, making it easier for companies to do business.

All these steps will lead to more certainty and consistency in the industry, and more cooperation will lead to increased learnings from best practice and the upskilling of the workforce by learning from each other.

At a time when the world is seeing increasing trade wars and closed off borders, with President Donald Trump at the forefront, the SADC should take the lead and make it easier for construction and engineering companies to work across borders.

Established in 1992, SADC is committed to regional integration and poverty eradication within Southern Africa through economic development and ensuring peace and security, and with better cooperation, policy agreement and open borders it can actually fulfil this commitment.

About the author

Monty Ditibane, director, DBI Consulting Engineers
Comment
Keith Horwood
Interesting discussion.The STEM comment is 100% on the button. However, it does not help that the Government Ministers of Education consistently lower the pass rates for science and mathematics. That is a sure recipe for disaster.This is the first of some pressing fundamentals that need to be addressed before anything else.Another issue is BBBEE. My view is that there is some seriously muddled thinking in the repressive legislation on this one. It is clear from the legislation that there is no longer any room for white entrepreneur-owners in the civil engineering industry in South Africa.How exactly the passing over of 51% of the shares of a company, from an elite white person to an elite black person, is going to help uplift the people on the bottom rung of the ladder is baffling in the extreme.Before they wipe the mist out of their eyes, the industry, and indeed the Government, are going to be confronted with a degree level skills shortage of mind-blowing proportions. The incredible brain-drain of well-qualified white professionals is happening as we speak.The reason is clear, the BBBEE legislation, in its present form is just a sick joke that does not address the problem using economic fundamentals.Of course there is a need to re-dress the balance but the current BBBEE legislation is not not going to address that inequity.The Zimbabwe Indigenization Laws are the baby brother of BBBEE and a visit to Zimbabwe will show the huge folly of that legislation.Using the recently published facts, as an indicator, only 6% of the bridges in Johannesburg are serviceable, it is clear that the country as a whole cannot afford to lose even one qualified Civil Engineer. Check the records to see the current statistics of how many qualified and competent Engineers are leaving the country!Think on these things.
Posted on 23 Aug 2018 08:27
Bruce Raath
I am a retired Civil Engineer and have written a series of training courses for practitioners at all levels in the industry. My courses have been accredited by CESA and are generally held in high esteem by attendees. At severla conferences lately the lack of skills has been highlighted and old grey heads have been criticised for not passing on experienced gained over many years.Technical courses however, are not supported and the number of courses cancelled this year so far are legion. There are many reasons for this, the state of the industry being paramount. I am now turning my hand to web based training where I can attract an audience from beyond South Africa's borders. Hopefully this will be more succesful as passing on hard won knowledge and experience has become a passion.Bruce Raath PrEng
Posted on 23 Aug 2018 09:03
Dakalo Ndou
"Unfortunately, in South Africa, and elsewhere on the continent, we are not providing our youth with the skills needed to be successful in this new economy. South Africa, and the rest of the continent, should assess its strengths and weaknesses, and address its challenges and take advantage of its opportunities, in this context" Very true , some youth end up being certificated but not educated because they lack backups(Mentors). I personally know some students who have necessary basics from university HOWEVER ones still need a mentor or someone who is experienced in our industry to groom them, to become best they can be, but they are not getting that opportunity.I thank God for being mentored by the best to become the best in our industry
Posted on 23 Aug 2018 13:02

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